Stale sites make a statement, too

Anyone who visits your Web site wants to know they are looking at the latest information about you and your business. If they're using the Web to reach you, they've already got expectations that they are ahead of the average dude who still uses the telephone to find out what's available. If your Web site includes a nice little statement telling people when it was last updated, you'd better make sure it wasn't two years ago.

But, you say, "I sell widgets and they don't change very often." Quite possibly true, and it's quite possibly valid that nothing has changed on your Web site, either. You still need to change that update message so that your customers know they are looking at the latest information. Even if that information is two years old, but still relevant, customers need to be sure it is the latest. And if you've taken the five minutes to update the date, you've also looked at the information and had a chance to change anything that really is out-of-date.

Unlike any other means of communication, your Web site requires no action on your part, and usually no interaction. You'd never give a walk-in customer stale information, but an awful lot of you are giving Web customers very stale information. To make it worse, those Web customers just don't bother coming back, and most of them won't even tell you they're not coming back. They just become another missed opportunity. Why did you get the Web site in the first place?

I'm not going to tell every small business out there that they absolutely must get into e-commerce or they'll be out of business in a few weeks. That just isn't true. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to set up a good Web site that is attractive to look at and has the latest information on whatever it is that you do at your shop. And it needn't cost you an embarrassing amount of money either. No matter what you may hear elsewhere.

Think about it for a minute or two. How much did you pay for the accounting system you use at your business? Well, that software is a lot more complex than almost any Web site you can imagine. So guess what? You shouldn't have to pay any more for your Web site than you did for your accounting system, and in most cases you should expect to pay a lot less. Of course, if your accounting system is Baan or SAP you should be able to get a killer Web site before you reach price parity. Everyone else should be able to get a result without spending much more than they usually spend on a good piece of software that helps run the business.

While you're thinking about the comparison between accounting packages and Web site software, ask your supplier if they have any plans to link the two applications together. You don't have to integrate your Web site with your accounting system, but it saves a lot of time and energy if the software you use all day to run the business is automatically keeping your Web site current and fresh. And if your Web business really takes off you'll save even more time by not having to enter everything into two databases. If your accounting system can't speak to the Web, ask when it will be able to.

If there's no answer to that question you might be better off with a new system that can do both tasks. That is, run your business wherever you happen to meet your customers.

All customers should get the same attention from your sales people, and no doubt they do if they walk in the door or make a phone call. Probably get good service if they send you an e-mail as well. Don't even bother to advertise an e-mail address if you only check it once a week. People who send e-mails expect same day response. Make sure you know they're waiting to hear from you by having your staff permanently connected to e-mail. You can't get by with a shared PC and modem in the corner any longer. Make sure that your Web customers aren't getting the bum's rush, or they'll go someplace that treats them right.

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Ian Yates

PC World
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